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Photographing the World from 40,000 Feet

The Aurora over Canada

It’s Christmas 1988; a five-year-old Dutch boy presses his small nose against the Perspex window, firmly holding on to his worn teddy bear. Overwhelmed by the landscapes beyond his porthole, his eyes are gazing at endless landscapes of fluffy cotton clouds, and coastlines of islands he’s never heard about.

He is absorbing views over endless expanses of deep blue and gasping at ice-covered worlds below that will be the inspiration for the rest of his life.

I was astonished at the moment Greenland passed by my window, nearly thirty-three years ago. There were glaciers, ice, and mountains for as far as I could see. These were landscapes that were nearly impossible for any human to visit; that much I knew already.

But here I was, sitting comfortably with an apple juice in hand and my mum reading her book next to me, all the while laying my eyes on something so isolated and remote. It’s an understatement to say I fell in love with the sensation of flight and observing the world from above.

Himalayas aerial photography
Snow-covered Himalayan mountains, China.

These fascinations never left me and resulted in me achieving my ultimate dream of becoming a pilot. I started glider flying lessons at the age of fourteen, and quickly moved my way up to motorised flying. I obtained my Private Pilot License (PPL) just before my driver’s license, at the age of eighteen.

Cruising above the Netherlands under my bubble canopy and trusting a purring engine, I once again felt the fascination of looking at the world from above. Miniature rivers, houses, and villages passed by, while I tried to capture those views with my first digital 2MP Sony Cybershot camera.

This was a desperate attempt to try and show other people the beauty of what I saw. Or, perhaps, an attempt to convince others why I was so in love with these perspectives; no-one else seemed to understand my urge to fly!

Mt Rainer, Washington, sunrise photograph
Misty morning sunrise above Mt Rainer, Washington.

It proved to be an utter failure; nearly all my shots were ruined by reflections from windows, out-of-focus subjects, or unrecoverable over-exposures. I did not have a particular interest in photography before I started flying, but it felt natural to use a camera to capture all these moments once aloft.

Adventures with a camera in hand

My flying career slowly but surely progressed, and so did my photography. Soon after finishing my flight school, I was flying the Fokker 50 turboprop for a wet-lease company, meaning they leased out aircraft (including crew) to other airlines.

Before I knew it, I was flying all over Europe, seeing the icy, frozen fjords of Norway, zooming through Scottish valleys, hopping islands across Greece, and cruising all over the Spanish peninsula. From one day to another I was not just seeing the Netherlands from my cockpit, but all of Europe.

Crossing the Alps low enough to see skiers grazing down the slopes, flying over the Pyrenees at sunrise, and witnessing nature’s fierce fireworks of thunderstorms at night, made me want to immortalise everything.

I quickly bought a slightly better camera with my first salary, and not a moment too soon: the company obtained contracts in Africa! Flying for various African airlines with the Fokker 50, I was suddenly living adventures I would never have believed possible if I hadn’t myself been there.

These included landing in remote settlements in the middle of the searing Sahara, visiting small airstrips deep in the sub-Saharan jungle, and finding myself in the chaos of a military coup after landing back in the capital at the end of the day.

I documented each and every step, realising I was in a unique position with a camera in hand. And, just when I thought things could not get more exciting, the company asked for volunteers to operate in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan from the air
Flying over Afghanistan.

I still remember stepping out of the aeroplane on to the apron of Kabul International Airport in the summer of 2006; I instantly fell in love with Afghanistan. I loved the deep cobalt-blue sky, the ragged snow-capped ridges of the Hindu Kush mountains all around, and the sense of untold ancient history and promising adventures.

Flying out of Kabul to make-shift runways and dusty airports all across the war-torn country with my Fokker 50 in 2006 – 2008 was a daring enterprise, and that’s an understatement. Working as a military contractor, I flew practically anything and went anywhere, anytime, while enjoying an unbelievable degree of freedom.

These were the perfect operating grounds for an audacious young pilot, and an even better place for a flying photographer.

Hindu Kush mountain range
Tian Shan mountain range, Afghanistan.

Flying over Afghanistan I started to realise that my love for flying, and the strong urge to capture unique and remote sceneries from above, was a golden combination. Located in the western part of the Himalayas, the breath-taking Hindu Kush mountains are a prominent feature of present-day Afghanistan.

Acting like a natural boundary between the sub-continents of India and Central Asia for millennia, they have been a bottleneck for armies and empires from ancient history to present day. It almost felt like a personal mission to document and immortalise this fascinating region from above.

In retrospect, the timings of my assignments to Africa, and subsequently Afghanistan, were ideal.

Now having had considerable experience with photography from the cockpit, I was aware of the limitations I faced, and what I needed to work around.

Thick-layered cockpit windows made it impossible to zoom more than roughly 50mm, so I reluctantly refrained from using large focal lengths, and instead forced myself to capture the wider views of landscapes.

I started holding my camera close to the window and avoiding certain angles to reduce the chance of reflections. These were lessons I had to learn the hard way, but it all came together over the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan in 2006.

This was also the time I began posting my photography on various websites. The reactions were overwhelming and prompted me to take my photography much more seriously. I quickly invested in better equipment (my first DSLR, the Nikon D80) and the learning curve steepened rapidly.

It was at this moment that I realised I had two careers in parallel. I shot one of my personal favourites of Afghanistan during my last tour there in 2008.

Fokker 50 F50 wing engine afghanistan bamiyan budda statues Christiaan van Heijst
Flying the Fokker 50 over the Bamiyan Valley’s Buddha statues in Afghanistan

Flying low and fast through the famous and historic Bamiyan Valley with my Fokker 50, I was looking at the enormous alcoves that were home to the 175-feet high Buddha statues until 2001, when they were partially blown up by the Taliban.

Having a keen interest in history, it was exciting to see them up close and personal during that fly-by. Afghanistan was one of the most profound and forming chapters in my life, but I guess all good things come to an end.

Flying at the boundary of space

My career progressed and I soon found myself flying Boeing 737s full of tourists across Europe. The adventures had finished, but a whole new chapter of aerial photography had begun.

High up in the stratosphere and above most of the weather, I found that light conditions were far more challenging compared to closer to Earth. The nature of my photography quickly shifted from documenting warzones, to capturing the serenity and vistas of the upper atmosphere.

Clouds from space aerial photography

The valuable lessons in photography I had learned on the Fokker 50 still applied to the cockpit of the 737. And even though I was disappointed to be limited to the use of wide-angle lenses, this soon proved to be a blessing in disguise.

Working around window reflections proved easy enough, and I felt the urge to work on my next challenge: night photography from the cockpit.

This new venture came with a whole new set of challenges: keeping the camera steady during long exposures, manual focusing without light, and balancing ISO sensitivity with shutter-time to get acceptable results. The Nikon D200 proved to be no match for the challenging night-time goals I had in mind.

While my photography progressed steadily, I missed the adventures and travelling I experienced before. It was time to step up my flying career.

Enter the Boeing 747 Freighter: The Queen of the Skies. This is the plane I’ve been flying for over eleven years now, always with some of the best cameras and high-end lenses in my flight bag, allowing me to capture all the splendour that passes by my windows.

This can include the glaciers of Alaska, lush Amazon jungles, moon-lit oceans, and dancing curtains of aurora – over the course of one week or less. The challenging cargo operation of the Boeing 747 takes me all over the planet, flying routes and destinations that are rarely – if ever – visited by passenger airlines and their pilots.

My need to immortalise these views is stronger than ever.

The Aurora over Canada
The Aurora over Canada

I quickly stepped up to the Nikon D800, and later the D850, allowing me to start documenting the world and night skies in ways I never thought possible.

Being limited to the use of wide-angle lenses eventually proved key to taking unique photos I never thought possible. For example, I found that by using the 14mm lens, the curvature of the Earth becomes visible in the photo, giving the viewer the sense of being in space.

photography at the edge of space
Boa Vista in the Atlantic Ocean, as seen from above

Barely visible to the naked eye, the slight curvature is magnified by using this lens, as it ‘compresses’ a nearly 160 degree view to an image that fits on a small screen.

Practical issues and challenges

Many people ask me how I plan some of my shots and compositions. The answer is quite simple: I don’t. We fly along predetermined routes, and I just work with the views as they float by my windows, always subject to the unpredictable nature of weather and clouds along the way.

However, I have developed an eye for compositions, and after years of experience I can see how a certain combination of the moon up in the sky and natural parallax lines creates a visually appealing image.

It’s just a question of waiting for the right moment to have them all in the right place, and taking the shot.

Aurora from the sky, aerial photography
A view of the Aurora on a moonlit night

Another challenge is to get the exposure right. Light sensors in cameras are calibrated to sea-level light conditions, covering 99% of all every-day situations for most photographers. However, 40,000 feet up in the atmosphere, the air is so thin that blinding sunlight of all wavelengths enters the camera largely unfiltered.

As a result, the automatic camera measurements are far off, in both exposure and colour temperatures. The best remedy for this is to under-expose daylight images one or two stops and shoot in RAW. This allows for the best possible results with minimum post-processing.

Since all cockpit windows are made of various polarised layers, using a polarising filter is not going to work either. Post-processing is your best friend here, albeit in moderation.

Long exposure photos at night are a completely different challenge, where the stabilisation of the camera is the biggest issue. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the lens must be as close to the window as possible, in order to reduce reflection.

This requires some creative solutions in a cramped space like a cockpit.

Sunrise, moon and Venus from cockpit of aeroplane
Capturing a sunrise, Venus and satellite movements from the cockpit

I don’t carry any special equipment – I just use whatever I have at hand to stabilise and support the lens as I place the camera on the glare-shield, against the windows. A glasses case, or even a tuna sandwich, will do in most cases.

I try to manually focus on infinity by finding a far-away object, like the moon, crossing my fingers for smooth skies, getting a fresh coffee, and clicking away.

At present, I always carry the following equipment in my flight bag:
Nikon Z7 (sometimes the Nikon D850 as well)
Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye
Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S

Most of my cockpit (and aerial) photography today is taken with the Nikon Z7 and 14-24mm f/2.8 objective.

To boldly go where (almost) no man has gone before

I felt a creeping fear that I would run out of inspiration or ideas for my aerial photography a few years ago. I had shot nearly everything already: sparking thunderstorms at night, aurora borealis in all shapes and colours, brilliant moonrises over the Pacific, sunsets over the Himalayas, and bright, colourful streaks of meteors in their last moments of billions of years of existence.

However, every time this thought arises, I consciously put it aside and remind myself to let go of any self-imposed constraints.

Milky Way nighttime star photography
The Milky Way over Mongolia

The array of beauty outside my windows is unlimited and, by simply focusing on what catches my mind’s eye, the results will always be original and authentic. Photography has no end goal, and I’m convinced that the more people who see the over-arching beauty of our planet, the better.

I would be lying if I said I have no ambitions. Shooting desolate, unforgiving landscapes like Afghanistan and Alaska from above is a privilege, and I feel I’m one of the first pilots and photographers to utilise my seat in the stratosphere to the fullest: immortalising the world from the edge of space.

moonrise astrophotography
Moonrise

I’d love to combine my longing for adventure, interest in writing, and passion for photography, by visiting my ultimate destination: the moon. It is an island in the sky with landscapes of such magnificent desolation, and the source of inspiration for poets, artists, and lovers since the dawn of mankind.

In conclusion

To quote Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut: “We need to have people up there who can communicate what it feels like, not just pilots and engineers.” So, when can I leave?

Let’s see what the coming decades of space exploration will bring. I’ll have my batteries charged and my camera bag packed and ready for whatever may come. Ad Astra!

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Visit Christiaan's website

Christiaan van Heijst is a Captain on the Boeing 747 and always carries his camera during his flights. His photography has been internationally recognized, including the title ‘Special Photographer of the Year’ in the International Photography Awards (IPA) 2019. He has published several books, including the award-winning coffee table book ‘Cargopilot’, with the 5th print run (the revised 'Captain's Edition') now in stores.

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